If you're going to be a consultancy, then do it to help companies & organisations reduce their working week

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Along with universal basic income, we have consistently supported the idea of a unilateral shortening of the working week (see archive). What is fascinating is the way that the case for shorter hours (for the same pay) is advancing in credibility along a number of vectors simultaneously. It’s beginning to look like a new common-sense.

The lauded new shorter working week report from the think-tank Autonomy show how this is happening. Go to the front page, and a strikng amount of mainstream media outlets have given it the time of day, including Bloomberg, Metro, Gizmodo and the Guardian. Take the Metro report:

The key to more productivity in the workplace could be letting people do less hours. A shorter working week is what’s required to boost the economy and help the UK’s ‘exhausted’ workforce, according to a new report.

The study pointed to better productivity in Germany where people worked fewer hours on average than the UK.

It compared this to Mexico and Greece that were less productive than Britain but where staff spent more time in the office.

The report from think tank Autonomy said another advantage of working less (but for the same pay) would be a reduction in UK’s carbon footprint as people would be travelling less.

The Bloomberg story develops the line:

The think tank made a series of recommendations, including using the public sector as an “innovator” in adopting a shorter working week without a reduction in pay.

An increase in bank holidays from eight to 14, in line with countries such as Malta and Spain, was also suggested.

The report advocates establishing a Ministry of Labour which would oversee a project of achieving a four-day full-time working week by 2025.

Autonomy’s co-director Kyle Lewis said: “There is a growing consensus that shorter working hours - without a loss in pay - should be part of a new economy and a new deal for working Britain.

“From the effects of overwork on our mental and physical health, to the damage that the work-consume cycle does to our environment, governments have to realise that the key to a sustainable future is not more work, but a collective reduction in work.”

The articles each feature an approving blurb quote from the Labour Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell - and the report is clearly aimed at informing the policy priorities of a possible Labour government. Shorter working hours is a classic labour movement demand. But what is more interesting is the way that the case is also made at the level of the enterprise, as strongly as it is about regulation.

Autonomy seem to have set themselves up as a “consultancy” on the shorter working week. They note in their Guardian pieces that the Wellcome Trust is about to shift to a four-day week without loss of pay, following other employers. As Autonomy’s director writes:

Our report undermines two commonly held myths: that working longer hours necessarily equals greater productivity, and that work is necessarily good for your health.

Some of the most productive economies in the world work far fewer hours collectively than the average UK worker. Strategies for increasing productivity must face the reality that productivity relies not just on the sheer number of hours put in, but on the wellbeing and overall health of the workforce – as well as on the level of investment in labour-saving technology.

Here, the evidence is stark: heavy workloads, as well as work-related stress and anxiety, are costing our public services as well as private companies millions each year, with one in four of all sick days being lost as a direct result of workload pressures.

In the report we draw on various case studies that demonstrate that shorter working weeks (and greater worker control over working time) can mean fewer sick absences, fewer in-work accidents and higher motivation on the job. Working fewer hours can be good for business too, and could relieve some strain on our public health services.

…If Britain is to truly take back control we must first of all recognise that our political discontent must be redirected towards fixing our broken economic system. A shorter working week can be a key part of a new strategy that focuses on putting democracy, communities and the environment at the core of its political strategy. 

More here. Our only (and consistent) push-back - and we have some history on this - is that there needs to be more than a “productivity” focus to the call for a shorter-working-week. The challenges of the 21st century - particularly climate disruption - requires us to have more civic resources: more time and space to deliberate among ourselves, about how we’ll have to change our lifestyles to respond to the encroaching planetary limits.

This isn’t just about dull meetings, but about the kind of creative, making-oriented conviviality that we have explored for two years and more on A/UK. An extra day wholesale would be an ideal example of top-down regulation meeting bottom-up human need. But we need to maintain the quality of our visions for what we’d do with those extra hours wrested from the machines.